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Laid out across a wide, flat, alluvial plain, Lima’s buildings fan out like a concrete phoenix in long, straight avenues and roads from its centre. The old colonial heart, Lima Centro, is of both architectural and cultural interest as well as being the seat of government and religion. South of here, along and just inland from the ocean cliff top, the modern centre of Miraflores, where most tourists stay, buzzes with shoppers by day and partiers by night. East along the coast a few kilometres, what was once a separate seaside suburb and artists’ quarter, Barranco, still boasts both tradition and a vibrant atmosphere. Between Miraflores and Lima Centro, jammed between the Paseo de la República and the Avenida Arequipa main roads that connect them, rise the skyscraping banks of San Isidro, Lima’s heaving commercial centre.
To the west, the city reaches a fine finger of low-lying land pointing into the Pacific; this is Callao, the rather down-at-heel port area, close to the airport. The shantytowns that line the highways, meanwhile, continue to swell with new arrivals from the high Andes, responsible in large part for the dramatic surge in Lima’s population in recent years.
Lima’s climate seems to set the city’s mood: in the height of summer (December to March) it fizzes with energy and excitement, though during the winter months (June to September) a low mist descends over the arid valley in which the city sits, forming a solid grey blanket – what Limeños call garua – from the beaches almost up to Chosica in the foothills of the Andes; it’s a phenomenon made worse by traffic-related air pollution, which dampens the city’s spirit, if only slightly.
When the Spanish first arrived here in 1533, the valley was dominated by three important Inca-controlled urban complexes: Carabayllo, to the north near Chillón; Maranga, now partly destroyed, by the Avenida La Marina, between the modern city and the Port of Callao; and Surco, now a suburb within the confines of greater Lima but where, until the mid-seventeenth century, the adobe houses of ancient chiefs lay empty yet painted in a variety of colourful images. Now these structures have faded back into the sandy desert terrain, and only the larger pyramids remain, protruding here and there amid the modern concrete urbanization.
Francisco Pizarro founded Spanish Lima, nicknamed the “City of the Kings”, in 1535. The name is thought to derive from a mispronunciation of Río Rimac, while others suggest that the name “Lima” is an ancient word that described the lands of Taulichusco, the chief who ruled this area when the Spanish arrived. Evidently recommended by mountain Indians as a site for a potential capital, it proved a good choice – apart perhaps from the winter coastal fog – offering a natural harbour nearby, a large well-watered river valley and relatively easy access up into the Andes.
Since the very beginning, Lima was different from the more popular image of Peru in which Andean peasants are pictured toiling on Inca-built mountain terraces. By the 1550s, the town had developed around a large plaza with wide streets leading through a fine collection of elegant mansions and well-stocked shops run by wealthy merchants, rapidly developing into the capital of a Spanish viceroyalty which encompassed not only Peru but also Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. The University of San Marcos, founded in 1551, is the oldest on the continent, and Lima housed the Western Hemisphere’s headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition from 1570 until 1820. It remained the most important, the richest, and – hardly believable today – the most alluring city in South America, until the early nineteenth century.
Perhaps the most prosperous era for Lima was the seventeenth century. By 1610 its population had reached a manageable 26,000, made up of forty percent black people (mostly slaves); thirty-eight percent Spanish people; no more than eight percent pure Indian; another eight percent (of unspecified ethnic origin) living under religious orders; and less than six percent mestizo, today probably the largest proportion of inhabitants. The centre of Lima was crowded with shops and stalls selling silks and fancy furniture from as far afield as China. Rimac, a suburb just over the river from the Plaza Mayor, and the port area of Callao, both grew up as satellite settlements – initially catering to the very rich, though they are now fairly run down.
The eighteenth century, a period of relative stagnation for Lima, was dramatically punctuated by the tremendous earthquake of 1746, which left only twenty houses standing in the whole city and killed some five thousand residents – nearly ten percent of the population. From 1761 to 1776 Lima and Peru were governed by Viceroy Amat, who, although more renowned for his relationship with the famous Peruvian actress La Perricholi, is also remembered for spearheading Lima’s rebirth. Under his rule, the city lost its cloistered atmosphere, and opened out with broad avenues, striking gardens, Rococo mansions and palatial salons. Influenced by the Bourbons, Amat’s designs for the city’s architecture arrived hand in hand with other transatlantic reverberations of the Enlightenment, such as the new anti-imperialist vision of an independent Peru.
In the nineteenth century Lima expanded still further to the east and south. The suburbs of Barrios Altos and La Victoria were poor from the start; above the beaches at Magdalena, Miraflores and Barranco, the wealthy developed new enclaves of their own. These were originally separated from the centre by several kilometres of farmland, at that time still studded with fabulous pre-Inca huacas and other adobe ruins. Lima’s first modern facelift and expansion was effected between 1919 and 1930, revitalizing the central areas. Under orders from President Leguia, the Plaza San Martín’s attractive colonnades and the Gran Hotel Bolívar were erected, the Palacio de Gobierno was rebuilt and the city was supplied with its first drinking-water and sewage systems.
Lima’s rapid growth has taken it from 300,000 inhabitants in 1930 to over nine million today, mostly accounted for by the massive immigration of peasants from the provinces into the pueblos jovenes (“young towns”, or shantytowns) now pressing in on the city. The ever-increasing traffic is a day-to-day problem, yet environmental awareness is rising almost as fast as Lima’s shantytowns and neon-lit, middle-class suburban neighbourhoods, and air quality has improved over the last ten years for the nine-million-plus people who live here.
Lima continues to grow, perhaps faster than ever, and the country’s economy is booming even in the face of serious slowdowns in some of Peru’s traditional markets, namely Europe and the US. The city is as varied as any in the developing world: while many of the thriving middle class enjoy living standards comparable to, or better than, those of the West, and the elite ride around in chauffeur-driven Cadillacs and fly to Miami for their monthly shopping, the vast majority of Lima’s inhabitants endure a constant struggle to put either food on the table or the flimsiest of roofs over their heads.
There are three main areas in which to stay. Most travellers on a budget end up in Lima Centro, in one of the traditional gringo dives around the Plaza Mayor or the San Francisco church. These are mainly old buildings and tend to be full of backpackers, but they aren’t necessarily the best choices in the old centre, even in their price range, as most of them are poorly maintained. If you can spend a little bit more and opt for mid-range, you’ll find some interesting old buildings bursting with atmosphere and style. If you’re into nightlife and want to stay somewhere with a downtown feel, with access to the sea, opt for a hotel further out of the city in Miraflores, which is still close to the seafront as well as home to most of Lima’s nightlife, culture and shops. However, most hostels here start at around S/50 per person, and quite a few hotels go above S/350. The trendy ocean-clifftop suburb of Barranco is increasingly the place of choice for the younger traveller. Apart from the artists’-quarter vibe and the clubs and restaurants, though, the area has little to offer in the way of sights. Other suburban options include San Isidro, mainly residential but close to some of the main bus terminals; and San Miguel, a mostly rather down-at heel suburb, close to the clifftop and extending from Miraflores towards La Perla and Callao.
Going to the cinema and theatre is an important part of life in Lima. Peruvians are a well-cultured people with a passion and intuitive understanding of everything from Latin music and fine arts to ancient textiles and traditional Andean dance forms. Peruvian culture is very much alive and most locals know dozens of songs and several folk dances, as well as being able to dance salsa with the best of them. Lima’s cultural centres, often associated with one of the local universities, are often the best place to catch innovative films, music shows and drama. The best source of information about film, theatre, sporting events and exhibitions is the daily El Comercio, especially its Friday supplement.
When it comes to shopping in Peru’s towns and cities, Lima is the most likely to have what you’re looking for. It’s certainly your best bet for shoes and clothing, particularly if you want a large selection to choose from. The same is true of electronic goods, stationery and music, though bear in mind that most Limeños who can afford it do their main shopping in Miami. Lima also has a good selection of reasonably priced arts and crafts markets and shops.
Lima is a treasure-trove of Peruvian artesanía, with woollen goods, crafts and gemstones among the best souvenirs. Artesanía shops tend to cluster in particular areas, and there are some dedicated craft markets too. Avenida La Paz in Miraflores boasts several shops selling precious metals, gemstones and antiques shops, with many places devoted to silverwork and other jewellery. Some of the cheapest traditional crafts in Peru can be found in an artesanía market area en route to Callao (or the Parque de Las Leyendas), located by the roadside blocks 6–8 of Avenida La Marina, in Pueblo Libre. The Mercado Indio, on Avenida Petit Thouars between blocks 48 and 54 (between Av Ricardo Palma and Av Angamos) is much more central, reasonably priced and home to the best craft and souvenir stalls and shops, all well within walking distance of Miraflores centre. Artesanía Gran Chimu, Av Petit Thouars 5495, has a wide range of jewellery and carved wooden items, as does Mercado Artesanal, Av Petit Thouars 5321. At La Rotunda, the small circular area towards the bottom (ocean) end of Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, a small selection of reasonable-quality crafts and antiques are displayed every evening (6–9pm).
Lima’s nightlife is more urban, modern and less traditional than in cities such as Cusco and Arequipa; Barranco is the trendiest and liveliest place to hang out. The city has an exciting club scene, with the majority of its popular bars and discos located out in the suburbs of San Isidro and Miraflores. In the summer months (Jan–March) the party sometimes carries on down the coast to the resort of Asia, 110km south, where there are some surprisingly sophisticated nightclubs.
As far as the live music scene goes, the great variety of traditional and hybrid sounds is one of the best reasons for visiting the capital, with folk group peñas, Latin jazz, rock, reggae and reggaeton all popular. All forms of Peruvian music can be found here, some – like salsa and Afro-Peruvian – better than anywhere else in the country. Even Andean folk music can be close to its best here (though Puno, Cusco and Arequipa are all more probable contenders).
Lima boasts some of the best restaurants in the country, serving not only traditional Peruvian dishes, but cuisines from all over the world. Many of the more upmarket places fill up very quickly, so it’s advisable to reserve in advance. In recent years a large number of cafés have sprung up around Miraflores and Barranco, many offering free wi-fi and providing snacks as well as coffee. Lima Centro is less well served by cafés, though there are a few appealing options.
Among South American capitals, Lima ranks alongside Rio and Buenos Aires for its selection of places to eat and drink, with restaurants, bars and cafés of every type and size crowding every corner of the city, from expensive hotel dining rooms to tiny, set-meal street stalls. What makes the local cuisine so special is a combination of diverse cultural ingredients (Andean, Spanish, Italian, African and Chinese in particular) alongside perhaps the world’s greatest store of indigenous edible plants, a by-product of Peru’s great biodiversity and range of ecosystems. Having the world’s largest forest and source of plants just on the other side of the Andes, in the Amazon Basin, and a good range of climates, Peru can boast that a lot of its food originated here. This ready availability has helped shape the culinary habits of the modern city, whose citizens take for granted fresh and varied food of great quality. Regardless of class or status, virtually all Limeños eat out regularly – and a meal out usually ends up as an evening’s entertainment in itself.
Widely acclaimed as one of the world’s great culinary destinations, Lima is a paradise for food enthusiasts. As well as a wide array of delicious meat-, rice- and vegetable-based criolla dishes, you’ll come across the highly creative novo andino cuisine, often pairing alpaca steaks with berries or cheese sauces from lush Andean farms, and best appreciated in Lima’s finest restaurants. Below are a few specialities that your taste buds will thank you for trying.
Seafood is particularly good in Lima, with ceviche – raw fish or seafood marinated in lime juice and served in dozens of possible formulas with onions, chillis, sweetcorn and sweet potatoes – a must-try.
These spicy mussels are best sampled near the port area of Callao.
This traditional goat feast has made its way to Lima from the northern coast of Peru; as well as tender goat meat, the dish incorporates a sauce made with chicha de jorra (rustic maize beer), yellow chillis, zapallo squash, onions and garlic, plus yuca and lots of fresh coriander, served with rice.
From northern Peru, this is a dish of duck and rice prepared as in the city of Chiclayo, with oranges, spices, beer, brandy, peas and peppers. It’s such a popular dish you’ll probably come across it in all regions of the country.
A good cut of beef roasted in a red sauce, ususally served with pure de papas (smooth, garlic-flavoured mashed potatoes).
The staple at the thousands of broaster restaurants found in every corner of Peru: essentially, spit- or oven-roasted chicken with chips, and often a very meagre salad on the side.
This is the Inca word for guinea pig, one of the most common foods for Andean country folk, but also something of a delicacy which can be found everywhere from backstreet cafés to the best restaurants in Lima, Cusco and Arequipa. There are various ways to prepare cuy for the plate, but cuy chactado (deep-fried) is one of the most common.
Pisco is Peru’s clear, grape-based brandy, which forms the heart of the national drink – pisco sour. The pisco, crushed ice, fresh lime juice, plus a sweetener and egg white, are whisked together with a bitter added at the end. It’s refreshing and sometimes surprisingly potent.
Since the gay and lesbian scene is relatively small, there are few gay meeting places, though the main park and Larco Mar centre in Miraflores can be cruisey in the evenings. Lima society has begun to grow more tolerant, but this does depend on which area you’re in. The male culture, however, is still primarily macho, so as a visitor, keeping a relatively low profile makes for an easier time.
With all its splendid architectural attractions, Lima Centro might well be expected to have a more tourist-focused vibe than it does. In reality, though, the neighbourhood is very much a centre of Limeños’ daily life. The main axis is formed by the parallel streets – Jirón de la Unión and Jirón V Carabaya – connecting the grand squares of the Plaza San Martín and Plaza Mayor. Here the roads are narrow and busy, bringing together many of the city’s office workers with street workers and slightly downmarket shops. There are many fine buildings from the colonial and Republican eras, overhung with ornate balconies, yet apart from a few – notably the Presidential Palace and Torre Tagle – these are in a poor state of repair. To the north you’ll find the slightly run-down, but fascinating Rimac suburb, home to the city’s bullring. South of the two main plazas, some lavish parks and galleries are within walking distance.
The old centre of Lima is surrounded by a number of sprawling suburbs, or distritos, which spread across the desert between the foothills of the Andes and the coast. Just south of Lima Centro lies the lively suburb of Miraflores, a slick, fast-moving and very ostentatious mini-metropolis, which has become Lima’s business and shopping zone. South of Miraflores begins the oceanside suburb of Barranco, one of the oldest and most attractive parts of Lima, above the steep sandy cliffs of the Costa Verde, hosting a small nightlife enclave. Sandwiched between Lima Centro and Miraflores is the plush suburb of San Isidro, boasting both the city’s main commercial and banking sector and a golf course surrounded by sky-scraping apartment buildings. West of here, Pueblo Libre is older, an established home to several good museums. To the east lies San Borja, a more recently constructed district with another fine museum, the Museo de la Nación. The city’s port area, Callao, is an atmospheric, if rather old and insalubrious zone tapering into the western peninsula of La Punta, with its air of slightly decayed grandeur. The suburb of La Victoria, on the other side of central Lima from Callao, contains some once-fine plazas and buildings, but is better known these days for its bus depots and pickpockets. Lima city’s sprawl means that there are massive urbanizations to the north, the south, and into the western foothills, where the upmarket suburb of Monterrico is found.
Most of Lima’s popular city beaches, like the surfers’ hangout of Playa Wakiki, are directly below the sea-facing cliffs of Miraflores, visible from the Larco Mar commercial complex and accessible on foot from Parque Kennedy.
Down beside the pounding rollers lies the Costa Verde beach area, so named because of vegetation clinging to the steep sandy cliffs. A bumpy road follows the shore from an exclusive yacht club and the Chorrillos Fishermen’s Wharf northwest past both Barranco and Miraflores, almost to the suburb of Magdalena. The sea is cold here, but the surfers still brave it. The Fishermen’s Wharf (around S/1) is always an interesting place for a stroll, surrounded by pelicans and, early in the day, fishermen unloading their catch, which is delivered immediately to the neighbouring market. The outdoor restaurants here compete vigorously for customers; all of them are pretty good and, not surprisingly, have a reputation for serving the freshest ceviche in Lima.
The quiet backstreets of Pueblo Libre are home to one of Lima’s most unusual attractions, the Museo Arqueológico Larco Herrera, which contains hundreds of thousands of excellently preserved ceramics, many of them Chiclin or Mochica pottery from around Trujillo. The mansion itself is noteworthy as a stylish casa Trujillana, in the style of the northern city where this collection was originally kept. The museum houses the largest collection of Peruvian antiquities in the world and is divided into three sections: the main museum, which contains an incredible range of household and funerary ceramics; the warehouse museum, with shelf after shelf stacked with ceramics; and the erotic art museum, holding a wide selection of sexually themed pre-Inca artefacts – mainly from the explicit Mochica culture – which tends to attract the most interest.
Miraflores’ central area focuses on the attractive, almost triangular Parque Kennedy (or Miraflores Central Park) at the end of Avenida Arequipa. Neatly grassed and with some attractive flowerbeds, the park divides into four areas of activity: at the top end is the pedestrian junction where the shoeshiners hang out; further down there’s a small amphitheatre, which often has mime acts or music; next you come to a raised and walled, circular concrete area, which has a good craft and antiques market set up on stalls every evening; and just down from here is a small section of gardens and a children’s play area. Painters sell their artwork in and around the edges of the park, particularly on Sundays – some quite good, though it’s aimed at the tourist market. The streets around the park are lined with smart cafés and bars, and crowded with shoppers, flower-sellers and car-washers.